Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Earlier today I had a student ask me an interesting question; why did Jesus pray to God? I know this student comes from an Islamic background, so I figured she was asking this question in regards to how the Trinity works. Basically, if Jesus is God, then why does He need to pray to God? There’s a direct answer to this question, which many people know (including my student), but I think there’s also an underlying aspect that can help us understand this disconnect even more.
The FIrst Confusion: The Trinity
The first issue present in this kind of question relates to the Trinity. As I mentioned, the idea of God praying to Himself just doesn’t make much sense to us. Is Jesus schizophrenic (or, more accurately, does he have multiple personality disorder)? Why would God need to talk to Himself?
The Trinity is definitely a complicated doctrine, one that is particularly puzzling to Muslims, so it’s no surprise that there is no shortage of questions relating to the Trinity when talking to a Muslim. To begin to answer this question, the Trinity does not mean that there is one person who is talking to Himself. The Trinity is the idea that there is one God, and this one God exists as three individual persons. So when Jesus talks to the Father, Jesus isn’t talking to Himself; He’s talking to another individual and different person, who is the Father.
This concept of Jesus talking to the Father comes down to the idea that the Trinity is essentially relational. God is, by nature, a relational being that communicates and – more importantly – loves. The Trinity, even within itself, is capable of love, because there are three persons. The Father loves the Son and Spirit, the Son loves the Father and Spirit, and the Spirit loves the Father and Son. This concept of communal love within the “Godhead”, or Trinity, shows that love is an essential aspect of God.
The Trinity Talks Amongst Themselves
To come back to our main question, relating this idea of God being relational within the Trinity, Jesus is talking to the Father because He is in relationship with the Father, and is communicating with Him. Now all this said, a Muslim will likely say that Christianity added the idea of the Trinity, even though there’s nothing biblical about it. In a Muslim understanding, the Trinity is an invented concept, and Jesus is just a man, and He prayed because He is not God. However, we can see another interesting example of this from the Old Testament. The important thing here is that the Old Testament came before Jesus and Christianity, and Muslims respect the Old Testament as a word from Allah. Considering these points, if we can find something in the Old Testament where the Trinity talks amongst themselves, then that aids the Christian understanding of Jesus praying. In the creation story of Genesis, we see God referring to Himself in the plural, and it seems as though He’s talking to Himself. We see God saying things like, “let us create man in ourimage”. From an Islamic position, this doesn’t make any sense. How can Allah be plural when he’s singular? Why would Allah need to talk to himself? However, from a Trinitarian understanding of there being relationship within the Trinity, it makes a lot more sense.
The Second Confusion: The Nature of Prayer
The second issue regarding this kind of question is less talked about, and helps us understand why the above answer still isn’t satisfying to a Muslim. It relates to the nature of prayer itself. The idea of Jesus praying to the Father isn’t puzzling merely because of the fact the Jesus needs to convey ideas to someone that’s not Him. The idea is even more puzzling because the Muslim views prayer in a different way than the Christian does. To a Muslim, prayer is a dutiful obligation done as an act of worship to merit Allah’s favor. In other words, it’s something you’re obligated to do, merely because Allah says you should do it. It’s a work, in the same way that giving to the poor is a work. Muslims are commanded to do five main things to be a good Muslim; confess their faith, give to the poor, fast, go on a pilgrimage, and of course, pray. There are even specific instructions as to when to pray, and even what direction to face when praying. This is why you will sometimes hear a “call to prayer” five times a day, which can be a loud sound, followed by Muslims stopping what they’re doing, all facing the same direction, assuming a prostrate position on the floor, and chanting. This is done in the same way as the other duties are done; out of obligation to please Allah.
This way of viewing prayer does not see prayer as a relational act. In fact, Islam teaches that Allah is unknowable, and that you as a human do not have a relationship with Allah. This is because Allah is so transcendent, so other, and so unknowable, that we cannot possibly relate to him. With this in mind, prayer cannot possibly be about relationship, or actual communication with God. Instead, it’s an act done as a good work to merit Allah’s graces.
Christianity’s View of Prayer Helps Us Understand
Prayer in Christianity is almost the complete opposite of an Islamic concept of prayer. To a Christian, prayer is communicating with God directly. We now have direct access to God, because of Jesus reconciling us through the forgiveness offered by His death on the cross which paid the price of our sins. In this way, we can speak directly to God, communicating with Him, and having a relationship with Him.
I think this is the reason that it’s so confusing to a Muslim why Jesus would pray to the Father if Jesus is God. Yes, it has to do with confusion regarding the Trinity, but it also has to do with differences surrounding what prayer is all about. If looked at with an Islamic understanding of prayer, Jesus would be dutifully performing a good work to try and merit Allah’s grace and favor, which wouldn’t make any sense if Jesus is one with Allah. Why would Jesus need to perform good works to earn Allah’s grace and mercy if Jesus is Allah? However, when we understand the difference of how Christianity approaches prayer, and how this fits within the nature of the Trinity, the concept makes a lot more sense.
What are your thoughts on this topic?